The two teams that have ruled the NFC South the past four seasons kickoff their 2013 campaigns against each other as the Atlanta Falcons face the New Orleans Saints at 1 p.m. ET Sunday on FOX. The Falcons are aiming to defend their division title and take another shot at getting to the Super Bowl, while the Saints welcome their head coach back after his one-year absence.
New Orleans’ home opener in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome also serves as head coach Sean Payton’s return to the sidelines following his one-year suspension for the BountyGate scandal. Atlanta has made some personnel changes, most notably the additions of running back Steven Jackson and defensive end Osi Umenyiora, in hopes of returning to the NFC championship game a second straight season, and this time winning it.
The Falcons and the Saints have combined to either win the NFC South or finish no worse than a tie for second in the division in each of the past four seasons. Atlanta is the defending division champion and also claimed the NFC South title in 2010, while the Saints finished first in ’11 and ’09. This game marks the first time since 1986 that New Orleans opened the season at home against Atlanta. The Falcons won that game, 31-10, and are a perfect 6-0 overall against the Saints in season openers, with five of these Week 1 victories coming in the Superdome.
Four Things to Watch
Steven Jackson’s Falcons’ debut
Jackson rattled off eight straight 1,000-yard seasons while in St. Louis and Falcon fans are hoping he makes it nine in a row this season. Atlanta’s offense finished in the top eight of the NFL last season in both scoring and yards gained, and did so with little support from the running game. The Falcons were 29th in the league in rushing in 2012, as the departed Michael Turner averaged just 3.6 yards per carry. Jackson’s career average is 4.2 yards per carry and if he is anywhere near as productive as he was for the Rams last season (1,042 yds., 4.1 ypc), it will make Matt Ryan and the passing game that much more dangerous.
Who Dat on D?
There’s no polite way to say it. The Saints were bad on defense last season, historically bad. New Orleans set the dubious distinction of allowing the most yards in a single season, 7,042 of them. This record-breaking poor performance resulted in the dismissal of Steve Spagnuolo and the hiring of Rob Ryan as defensive coordinator. Ryan, who was fired by the Cowboys, has switched the Saints from a 4-3 to a pressure-based 3-4 system. Several key injuries have already impacted the transition, so it will be interesting to see how the Saints’ new look fares against the Falcons’ high-octane offense.
Falcons’ pass defense
Atlanta finished in the bottom half of pass defenses last year, coming in at 23rd in the league after allowing 242 yards per game through the air. The Falcons upgraded their cornerback depth in the draft by taking Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford with their first two picks. The veteran starters are established in cornerback Asante Samuel and safeties Thomas DeCoud and William Moore, but this unit needs to be at its best if it hopes to slow down Dree Brees and the Saints’ aerial attack.
Can the Saints march down the field?
Everyone knows the Saints love to throw the ball, as Drew Brees has put up back-to-back 5,000-yard seasons. The key to the overall success of the Saints’ offense, however, is the production of the ground game. Last season, New Orleans averaged less than 100 yards rushing per game and head coach Sean Payton has already stated his desire to re-establish the run. A more balanced Saints offense will make Brees’ life in the pocket easier, so it’s now up to Mark Ingram, Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas to get the job done when the play call is a run instead of a pass.
Atlanta Key Player: Desmond Trufant, CB
Trufant, the Falcons’ first-round pick in April, is expected to start at cornerback opposite Asante Samuel. The former Washington Husky has good size (6-0, 190), and will more than likely be tested by Brees and the Saints’ pass-catchers right out of the gate. Fellow rookie Robert Alford also figures to see plenty of playing time behind Trufrant and Asante Samuel and as the third cornerback in certain packages.
New Orleans Key Player: Keenan Lewis, CB
New Orleans allowed more than 290 yards passing per game last season, a number that was surpassed by only one other team. In hopes of making over their secondary, the Saints signed Lewis, the former Pittsburgh Steeler, as a free agent. Lewis has the size (6-0, 208) and speed defensive coordinator Rob Ryan likes in his cornerbacks, and it’s up to him and the rest of the defensive backfield to get the job done in coverage to allow the pressure from the front seven to be a factor. Facing off with Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez is as good a test as any for Saints’ new-look secondary.
These two teams have combined to win the last four NFC South division titles and little is expected to change in that respect this season. The Saints have won their last two home games against the Falcons, including a 31-27 decision last November that gave Atlanta its first loss following an 8-0 start.
The Saints, both the team and its fan base alike, are ecstatic to have head coach Sean Payton back on the sidelines and calling the plays. The Mercedes-Benz Superdome is one of the loudest home environments in the NFL and figures to be rocking for this one. The emotional and energy factors seem to favor the Saints, but this is a veteran, tested Falcons team that has its sights focused on one goal – to get back to the playoffs and take care of unfinished business.
As explosive as the Saints’ offense is, the Falcons are one of the few teams that can match their firepower and that was before Atlanta added Steven Jackson to the mix. In the end, Matt Ryan takes full advantage of his newest weapon as the Falcons are able to exploit a Saints’ defense that’s a work in progress just enough to escape the Superdome with a hard-fought, opening road win.
Atlanta 31, New Orleans 28